Don't let Mideast violence derail peace commitment

From the beginning, the success of President Bush's peace initiative in the Middle East depended on its ability to survive violence perpetrated by those who opposed it. Now that violence has come.

As expected, it came first from Palestinian terror groups, who attacked an Israeli military outpost Sunday and killed four soldiers. Those groups do not want peace; in fact they cannot survive peace. Like vultures, they thrive on the cycle of death.

In the wake of that attack, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced an important choice: He could retaliate and by doing so undercut the peace process and allow the terrorists to achieve exactly what they hoped. Or he could hold his fire at least temporarily, deny the terrorists the fuel they needed and fan the admittedly dim flame of hope that the cycle of violence could somehow be broken.

Sharon not only chose retaliation, but he also chose it on a scale guaranteed to escalate the violence. He approved an assassination attempt against one of the most visible leaders of Hamas. The attempt failed; two innocent bystanders, a Palestinian woman and child, were killed instead.

Sharon made that choice knowing that it would remove any sense of pressure on Hamas to accept a truce. He knew equally well that the attack would undermine the already fragile credibility of his supposed partner in the peace talks, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. He knew it would dramatically undermine the peace process in which Bush had invested so much American credibility.

He did it anyway.

The vultures of Hamas, with fresh bodies to feed upon and now freed of pressure to show restraint, attacked a civilian target in Israel the next day, killing at least 16 innocent people. Israel responded with yet another assassination effort, which killed seven Palestinians, this time including its intended target.

It is all too familiar. Too many Israelis and Palestinians have concluded that this permanent if low-intensity warfare is a less risky course than peace. Extremists on both sides still cling to irrational dreams that only violence can accomplish, and moderates on both sides still lack the power to slam those dreams shut.

Only the United States holds the power to change that situation. While the damage done to the peace effort by this spasm of violence is substantial, it is fatal only if Bush accepts it as such.

Again, a challenge of this sort was inevitable. Everybody knew it was coming; everybody knew that the key would be how people responded. While Sharon responded poorly, Bush can keep hopes flickering by insisting to all parties in the region that this changes nothing, that his determination remains firm and that those who act contrary to peace will pay a price for doing so.